Sheri Levy Ph.D.

Taking Ageism Seriously

September 13 Is Grandparents Day

How will you celebrate a COVID-19 Grandparents Day?

Posted Sep 13, 2020

Grandmother and Mother
Source: Katrena/Pixabay

More people will be mourning grandparents this year than in other years. The COVID-19 death toll among older adults has been far too high.

Grandparents Day is a day to appreciate and celebrate the valuable contributions of grandparents to families and communities. It’s not a holiday created by the greeting card or floral industries. President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation designating the Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day, which began in 1979. National Grandparents Day is celebrated in many countries, including Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately, ageism, which refers to negative attitudes and behavior toward older adults, continues to be a “serious national problem” since the concept was introduced by physician Robert N. Butler in 1969. Butler became the first Director of the National Institute on Aging in the U.S. and wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Why Survive?: Being Old in America. Here are some excerpts from his “personal note” before the preface of his book.

“My grandparents reared me from infancy… [my grandfather] was my close friend and my teacher… he would tell me of his younger days in Oklahoma and I would listen eagerly… If love of my grandfather and old Dr. Rose brought me to medicine, it was my grandmother in the years that followed who showed me the strength and endurance of the elderly… We lost the farm. She and I were soon on relief, eating government-surplus food out of cans with stigmatizing white labels… We moved into a hotel. When I was eleven, it burned to the ground with all our possessions. We started again. And what I remember even more than the hardships of those years was my grandmother’s triumphant spirit and determination. Experiencing at firsthand an older person’s struggle to survive, I was myself helped to survive as well. If this book informs, illuminates, angers and guides its readers, I shall have repaid some of the debt I owe.”

Grandmother and grandchild.
Source: Lin2867/Pixabay

In the United States and elsewhere, we continue to count on older adults for the caring of grandchildren. Grandparents provide a significant amount of care, and some serve as primary caregivers. Older adults generally volunteer more hours than any other age group. Today is as good a day as any to acknowledge, celebrate, and appreciate older adults’ significant positive roles and contributions to families and societies.

Today is as good a day as any to take time to listen and enjoy an inspirational story from a grandparent and/or an older neighbor, co-worker, or stranger. Ask for a story and be an engaged listener. Research on intergenerational reminiscence shows that those few minutes of storytelling are mutually beneficial—lifting the mood of older adults while the recipients gain valuable life advice and more positive attitudes toward aging and older adulthood.

If you are thinking about helping an older adult in some way to show your appreciation and love, please consider that unsolicited, well-intentioned, and seemingly positive helping behaviors are not necessarily perceived as “helping” or in a positive light and can backfire with unintentional negative consequences. Offers and gestures of help can leave older adults feeling patronized and viewed as helpless, sickly, and weak, which can then undermine their self-esteem and self-efficacy. It’s best to ask people what would be helpful to them.

Rajesh Balouria/Pixabay
Grandparent and grandchild.
Source: Rajesh Balouria/Pixabay

Getting the facts on aging is another way to celebrate Grandparents Day. Most Americans do not receive any formal education about older adulthood. Most Americans are taught about infancy through puberty and not beyond.

We don’t receive a lot of reliable information about aging in our youth-centered culture. Instead, we tend to get negative and exaggerated portrayals of older adulthood as a time of inevitable deterioration and disease, which also creates aging anxiety and promotes social avoidance of older adults. Test your knowledge with a facts-on-aging quiz or review the National Institute of Aging website.

My heart goes out to those who have lost their grandparents (and other loved ones) in 2020. Let’s celebrate grandparents—the ones who are nearby, who are far away, who are our biological and adopted grandparents, and who are in our cherished memories.


Levy, S.R. (2016). Toward reducing ageism: PEACE (Positive Education about Aging and Contact Experiences) Model. The Gerontologist. Article first published online: 10 AUG 2016, doi: 10.1093/geront/gnw116

Levy, S.R., & Macdonald, J.L. (2016). Progress on Understanding Ageism. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 5-25. doi: 10.1111/josi.12153

Monahan, C., Macdonald, J., Lytle, A., Apriceno, M., & Levy, S.R. (2020). COVID-19 and ageism: How positive and negative responses impact older adults and society. American Psychologist. Advance online publication.

 Butler, R. N. (1963). The life review: an interpretation of reminiscence in the aged. Psychiatry, 26, 65-76.

Gaggioli, A., Morganti, L., Bonfiglio, S., Scaratti, C., Cipresso, P., Serino, S., & Riva, G. (2014). Intergenerational group reminiscence: A potentially effective intervention to enhance elderly psychosocial wellbeing and to improve children’s perception of aging. Educational Gerontology, 40(7), 486-498. doi:10.1080/03601277.2013.844042

Pinquart, M., & Forstmeier, S. (2012). Effects of reminiscence interventions on psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysis. Aging and Mental Health, 16(5), 541-558. doi:10.1080/13607863.2011.651434